Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly — a Personal Essay
Updated: Mar 25
By Frank Rojas 3/23/20
"I remember you was conflicted
Misusing your influence
Sometimes I did the same
Abusing my power, full of resentment
Resentment that turned into a deep depression
Found myself screaming in the hotel room
I didn’t wanna self destruct
The evils of Lucy was all around me
So I went running for answers”
Those are a few of the lines from a recurring interlude that is found throughout Kendrick Lamar’s second major studio album, To Pimp a Butterfly. Released on March 15, 2015, the record recently celebrated its fifth anniversary.
The album’s title is a reference to Lamar’s personal growth as he reaches fame and success while suffering from the pain and depression of the survivor’s guilt of making it out of Compton. It is about how Lamar challenges himself to pimp a negative situation into a positive one. But the irony to me is that it's about how I applied his lyrics of isolation of living in the closet in a genre that oftentimes degrades and cancels out my existence.
I felt this message on a deeper level surrounded by a crowd of strangers when I witnessed the album performed live. Wearing a black sweater and pants, Kendrick was backed by a small live band. An arrow neon sign read “Pimps Only” as the red lights from the letters reflected onto a white couch. Silver streamers hung in the background in a setting so intimate I felt I was staring directly into someone’s living room. Kendrick’s Kunta Groove Sessions Tour was the first concert I ever attended on my own. (My sister was working on her masters at the time and got out of class late. She still made it 3 songs in before Kendrick ended his set.)
As a 20-year-old who was not yet out, I felt intimidated by the space. Growing up, I never really listened to hip hop music. A lot of it has to deal with the assumptions that it’s hyper-masculine, misogynistic, and homophobic. And while those issues are highly prevalent, it’s important to note that it does not reflect the entire genre. In a way, I was able to relate to To Pimp a Butterfly’s themes of guilt and resilience. These are universal themes that are not necessarily tied to one’s race, sexual orientation or even genre.
Now homophobia in hip hop is nothing new. Here is a link to a recent article for a bit of a backstory that I don’t want to indulge in as it may take away from the real sentiment of this story. This is still an issue and normalizing it will only make the ignorance worse.
I first heard of Kendrick on his track “Swimming Pools” a song about alcoholism masked with beats that you would hear at a club. The dichotomy of the song's lyrics and the beat stayed with me. But it wasn't until I heard the song “i” that I started to listen to Kendrick as first a poet and a rapper second.
As the first single off the album, the artwork depicts two pairs of hands that are positioned in prayer while making the image a heart. The red and blue colors symbolize the Bloods and Crips, two Los Angeles gang rivals brought together in peaceful unity for one picture. The track samples the Isley Brothers’s “That Lady” set to words of empowerment.
“I done been through a whole lot
Trial, tribulation, but I know God
Satan wanna put me in a bow tie
Pray that the holy water don't go dry
As I look around me
So many motherfuckers wanna down me
But an enemigo never drown me
In front of a dirty double-mirror they found me”
The chorus goes on to sing about self-love in the face of trying times and even thoughts of suicide. It is an unapologetic bold statement about one's past, present, and future. The first thing that I think of when I hear that song is pride- a sentiment and term that is synonymous with the LGBTQ community.
The isolation Kendrick raps about in receiving success was the isolation I was experiencing in my own identity. I have often used metaphors as a coded means to communicate what I am feeling. The guilt I felt was not solely on how I can bring an abundance of goodness into my community, but also how - and if ever my community will come to accept me.
To Pimp a Butterfly is a conceptual album with each song adding to the larger narrative Kendrick is telling. From the naiveness of reaching young success in the opening track of “Wesley’s Theory'' to the final and more vulnerable moments of “Mortal Man” which includes a conversation between Kendrick and the late rapper Tupac. In it, Kendrick reads him a poem about the transformation of a caterpillar into a butterfly. This metamorphosis was one I was on the cusp of experiencing in my personal life.
As a caterpillar, I was noticing ways to survive. Part of my survival was living in the closet. But this lifestyle that was meant to protect me was also stumping my growth. Like the caterpillar, I became a prisoner in the cocoon that I had created. I would praise my lie but shun my reality. This self-institutionalization made me more hungry for freedom. This starvation was necessary for the hunger I would need to be able to break free.
(Lyrics from "Mortal Man")
“Wings begin to emerge, breaking the cycle of feeling stagnant
Finally free, the butterfly sheds light on situations
That the caterpillar never considered
Ending the internal struggle
Although the butterfly and caterpillar are completely different
They are one in the same"
To Pimp a Butterfly is more than just an artistic statement. It is a statement on a moment in reality. With songs such as “Alright” serving as an anthem for the Black Lives Matter movement, the album carries a message of hope. When most pieces of art are used as a means of escapism, Kendrick Lamar uses his music as a way to confront the harsh realities of the world. It’s a challenging process but once you’ve made it to the other side and listened through an entire album, track by track, you gain a perspective. And it is through that you have gained another freedom that you did not have before.
It's more than just the music.
Top Tracks from To Pimp a Butterfly